Lady (née Griffin) Jane Franklin, the second wife of Sir John Franklin, was a woman of indominable will and spirit. Through her efforts to find traces of her husband's last Arctic expedition to the Canadian Arctic archipelago, she became the sponsor of several, and the inspiration for many other, Arctic expeditions to the North West Passage in the period 1850-1875.
The role for which Franklin is perhaps best known did not commence until her husband's disappearance on what proved to be his third and final Arctic expedition, which sailed from England in May 1845. When no word had been heard by 1848, Franklin led the public demand for a search expedition, and when the Admiralty's efforts bore no fruit, she organized and funded her own. The first expedition she sponsored, commanded by the veteran whaling captain William Penny in 1850-1851, was one of several parties that penetrated Barrow's Straits and located Franklin's first winter camp on Beechey Island, off Devon Island. Franklin also wrote to the government of the United States, which, with the assistance of the expatriate British businessman Henry Grinnell, dispatched a search expedition of its own under the command of Edwin J. De Haven (1850-1851). Franklin sponsored further expeditions commanded by Charles Codrington Forsyth on the Prince Albert (1850) and William Kennedy and Joseph-René Bellot (18511852). Although neither found any sign of Franklin, Kennedy and Bellot traveled extensively by sledge, discovering Bellot Strait on the Boothia Peninsula and passing, although they did not know it, within a hundred miles of where Franklin's ships had been abandoned.
The Admiralty next sent a fleet of five ships under Sir Edward Belcher (1852-1854), but they discovered no further traces of Franklin's party. His ships froze in the ice, and Belcher's order to abandon them proved both unpopular and costly. Calls for further expeditions were put on hold by the outbreak of the Crimean War (1854-1855), but Franklin continued her assault on the government, so much so that her home in London became known as the "Battery." Miraculously, the Resolute, one of Belcher's ships, drifted unpiloted to the Davis Straits, whence it was remanned by an American whaling crew, refurbished, and presented to the British government as a token of friendship. Yet despite the symbolic force of these events, Franklin was unable to persuade the Admiralty to send the Resolute, or any other ship, to the Arctic.
A further challenge emerged in 1854 when John Rae returned to England with artifacts from Sir John Franklin's expedition, including Franklin's own Hanoverian Cross of knighthood. Rae reported that the Inuit had told him of cannibalism among Franklin's men, a charge Lady Franklin labored to refute. In part at her behest, Charles Dickens penned a scathing rebuke of Rae's charges, which ran for two consecutive issues of the journal Household Words. In the meantime, despite the financial and emotional toll of her fight, Franklin continued to travel, venturing as far as India, North Africa, and Hawaii.
As the Crimean War drew to a close, Franklin renewed her attempts to change the government's mind. When letters to the Times and petitions to Parliament signed by a hundred men of science failed to bring about any change at the Admiralty, Franklin recruited Frances Leopold McClintock—a veteran of earlier searches—and obtained for him the small yacht Fox, on which he sailed in 1857. Adverse ice conditions cost McClintock a year, but he persisted. In 1859, his lieutenant discovered the last official record left by Franklin's men on King William Island, which disclosed that Sir John Franklin had died in July 1847, and that the ships had been abandoned early in 1848. Only then, with concrete evidence in hand, did Jane Franklin allow herself to assume the public role of widow. Her search for Franklin inspired songs and ballads, and the Times dubbed her "our English Penelope," but she had little time for such public laurels. Franklin continued to travel, once undertaking a trip from San Francisco to Sitka, Alaska, in the hope that some records of her husband's expedition might have found their way into the archives there.
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